Prior to the First World War, women were caregivers on the sidelines of battlefields treating wounded soldiers. A need for dedicated switchboard operators overseas in World War I created an opportunity for women to become engaged in war efforts in a different way. With the relatively new invention of the telephone just a few decades prior, it became an essential tool for communication between commanders and frontline soldiers in World War I. However, it became clear in the first few years of the war that new telephone operators were needed due to the disheveled state of the communications network in France. Bilingual women with experience operating switchboards were recruited by the US Army to turn war communications around. The women, known as the Hello Girls, were patriotic and determined to relay important information to support the war.
Who Were the Hello Girls?
The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit was a civilian personnel branch of the US Army Signal Corps that employed female telephone operators to connect communications between the frontlines and commanders in World War I. The women in the telephone operators unit were nicknamed Hello Girls because they greeted every call with “hello.”
General John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), had expressed his dissatisfaction with the current state of communications on the Western Front. As a result, the Hello Girls unit was formed in 1917 in an effort to ramp up communications.
Prior to the Hello Girls, the first telephone operators in World War I were men from the US and French women. The men assigned to telephone operator duties were poorly trained and sometimes hung up if combat officers yelled at them. There was a struggle for communication between officers and the frontlines when French women were in charge of the lines because many didn’t speak English. They were also less motivated to perform their duties and did so in a casual manner, despite the urgency that many of the calls entailed.
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General Pershing knew that changes had to be made to keep the telephone lines operable and running smoothly for the remainder of the war. Newspaper ads were sent out requesting experienced US women telephone operators who spoke English and French to join the US Army Signal Corps. Telecommunications provider AT&T was asked to recruit and train qualified telephone operators interested in the position. The call for motivated women to participate in the war proved successful, as more than 7,600 women applied.
Women’s Involvement in Prior War Efforts
Opening up telephone operator positions as a part of the US Army Signal Corps was a huge opportunity for women to become more involved in US war efforts. Women often took on nursing roles to support men in war. It wasn’t until the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 was signed into law that women were authorized to enlist in the Armed Forces as official members. However, the number of women allowed on active lists was limited, as well as their duties. Only 2% of all enlistees in every branch of the US Armed Forces were allowed to be women. In World War I and World War II, women were limited to non-combat roles, which typically involved clerical duties. Women were banned from assuming direct combat positions until 2013 when the process to open up combat positions to women in the US began.
Before World War I, women mainly participated in war efforts as nurses and nursing aides to care for sick and injured soldiers. Other women took on domestic duties, such as washing soldier uniforms and blankets, organizing fundraising campaigns, cooking, and growing food. These roles became especially common in the American Civil War. About 3,000 women served in the Civil War as nurses for the Union Army. Thousands of other women supported the war in other ways. However, they weren’t allowed to enlist as a soldier, although a few hundred women managed to disguise themselves as men to participate in combat. Women sent overseas in World War I as Hello Girls provided an opportunity for women to engage in war efforts in a new way and push women’s involvement in war forward.
Recruitment of the Hello Girls
Newspaper ads for telephone operators were sent out across the US requesting women telephone operators in 1917. General Pershing requested 100 experienced women telephone operators fluent in English and French. The AEF, charged with coordinating the recruitment process, favored applicants aged between 23 and 28 years old. Although thousands of women applied for telephone operator positions with the US Signal Army Corps, only a few hundred were accepted. Many women who initially applied didn’t have telephone operating experience or weren’t fluent in French. Most of the women accepted were telephone operators, but some were also teachers, clerical workers, stay-at-home mothers and wives, and students.
AT&T helped search for experienced telephone operators who met the desired qualifications. However, recruiting women with proper qualifications was difficult because many women who worked for AT&T as telephone operators weren’t bilingual. French-speaking immigrants usually weren’t employed by US telecommunications companies if they had a thick accent. As part of the screening for applicants, women also had to pass a rigorous test of translating messages into French and English over the telephone. Even women who had some education in French through schooling were often unable to pass the examination.
More than half of the hired women were fluent in French and trained to be telephone operators. After candidates were selected for the position, they were screened similarly to soldiers to ensure they were acting in support of the Allied cause. About 450 women were trained, but only 233 were selected by the AEF to be sent overseas to serve as operators, mainly in France and England. All of the women accepted into the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit were issued official US Army uniforms, took the US Army oath, and were subject to all military rules.
Women sent overseas were split up into six groups. The first four units sent were under the command of women chief operators, a status equivalent to a lieutenant. The other two units were commanded by male officers. The need for more women telephone operators grew just a year after the first newspaper ad was sent out. This lessened the restrictions on women allowed to apply for the position. Women who were bilingual in English and French without telephone operating experience were accepted in 1918. As demands increased, experienced telephone operators unable to speak French were also hired.
Hello Girls Ranks and Responsibilities
The Hello Girls ranks weren’t the same as regular US Army Signal Corps ranks. However, duties were split up, and each telephone operating unit included women assigned to certain levels of responsibilities. Grace Banker, a notable Hello Girl, was the chief operator of Unit 1. Inez Crittenden was the chief operator of Unit 2, Nellie F. Snow was the chief operator of Unit 3, and Geneva Mildred Marsh was the chief operator of Unit 4. Units 5 and 6 were led by First Lieutenant Eugene Du Bose Hill and Second Lieutenant William Frank Packard Jr. Chief operators were paid $125 per month for their services, which was the same pay that a male Signal Corps soldier received. The next rank below the chief operator was supervisor, which was assumed by multiple women in each unit. Pay for lower ranks started at $50 a month.
The first units of Hello Girls were sent to France in March 1918. Despite being in non-combat positions, some Hello Girls operated switchboards in close proximity to the frontlines. About 12 operators were selected to serve at the First Army Headquarters, which was stationed near the frontlines and within artillery range in the final stages of World War I. They had to work the switchboards with gas masks handy. Some women were stationed in Saint-Mihiel and Souilly, France on the frontlines. Other operators were sent to the Second and Third Army Headquarters.
The Hello Girls worked day and night to connect calls and helped coordinate infantry advances and troop movements. They also communicated artillery placements and exchanged messages between frontline soldiers and commanders. On October 30, 1918, a fire broke out at the First Army headquarters after a German prisoner of war knocked over an oil stove. The operators continued to connect calls and relay messages despite the flames reaching the telephone exchange building and commands to evacuate. The operators ignored instructions to evacuate until they were threatened with being court-martialed if they didn’t obey orders. After the fire was under control, the operators entered the building with smoke still creating a haze inside to continue operating the telephone lines.
The Hello Girls were patriotic and motivated to serve their country and didn’t care that they were operating in close range to the dangers of war. They turned the communications around from the disastrous state that General Pershing had found it in. Their call times were about six times faster than that of the men who previously held their positions. Throughout World War I, the Hello Girls connected more than 26 million calls. The average speed of answering and connecting these calls was approximately 10 seconds.
Recognition of the Hello Girls
The astounding efforts of the Hello Girls in World War I have been applauded by many for their bravery and determination. Upon their return home, however, the Hello Girls weren’t greeted with such praise. Despite their dedication throughout the war, the Hello Girls didn’t receive the same recognition as those who fought in combat. A number of Hello Girls received an Exceptionally Meritorious and Conspicuous Services certificate acknowledging their services. The certificate also included a letter on behalf of the Signal Corps stating how proud the branch was of their performance. However, it was decided that the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit didn’t carry the same weight as other military branches. The women in the unit weren’t considered members of the US Army but contract employees. They weren’t allowed to claim veterans or other military benefits following the war.
Telephone operator Merle Egan Anderson, along with others, decided to pursue proper recognition and military benefits for the World War I efforts of women telephone operators in 1930. It took another 47 years before the Hello Girls would receive US Army veteran status. Upon the enactment of the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, the Hello Girls were officially granted US Army veteran status and military benefits and recognized for their efforts by being awarded World War I Victory Medals. A Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Hello Girls through the signing of the Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019. Unfortunately, numerous women who served as Hello Girls had died before receiving any military benefits or official recognition for their achievements.